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From Dime Store to Luxury

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  The City Council on Sept. 22 voted 5-2 in favor of a multi-use high-rise development at the corner of North Rampart and Canal streets, the site of the long-vacant Woolworth building. Councilmembers Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell were the dissenting votes. The vote itself, which lasted 10 seconds, was nevertheless preceded by nearly two-and-a-half hours of debate, and here's how that time was spent:

  First, there were 15 minutes of comments from people who were opposed to the project. Bill Borah of Smart Growth for Louisiana went first and objected to what he called "undemocratic" time limits on public commentary. (District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who sponsored the bill, later showed a lengthy list of public meetings held over the course of negotiations on the project.) Others cited the project's seeming inconsistency with plans for the city's new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO), which would limit Canal Street buildings to 120 feet, a number preservationists didn't oppose.

  "I hope you're going to tell us today that the new rules, the new CZO, is not just going to be a jumping-off point for variances," said Nathan Chapman, founder of the Marketing Center for Social Security Law Practices and a vocal preservationist.

  Some accused councilmembers of "kissing the ring" of politically powerful, big-money developers, even when they weren't playing by the rules. "This is not kissing the ring," Council President Jackie Clarkson said.

  Supporters then had their 15 minutes, which included a PowerPoint presentation. Many in this group were people actively involved in the project, including development team leader Praveen Kailas, Kailas' lawyer Chris Kane and Hank Smith of Harry Baker Smith Architects, which designed the building. Smith called the 120-foot limit in this case "arbitrary," saying the average height of buildings on Canal Street is 173 feet.

  Head signaled her opposition when she went after the developers for requesting and getting a $2.4 million 2008 assessment ($1.2 million less than the $3.6 million they spent on the property in 2007), saying the city lost $75,000 to $100,000 in tax revenue as a result of the reassessment. An amendment from Head that would have limited the development's height to 154 feet on its Canal front and 70 feet on its Iberville front failed without a vote when no one else would second it.

  Finally, it was on to final statements from councilmembers — that part where, just prior to the actual vote, each member takes 15 minutes to tell the audience what their votes are going to be. Councilman Jon Johnson said he thought tourists are disappointed to find out that the French Quarter doesn't offer easy access to glitzy retail chains. "Why should a person who flies into New Orleans, comes into the CBD, have to go out to Metairie for high-end retail?" Johnson said. — Maldonado

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